Kitty Genovese…

…and the notion of collective irresponsibility. On the 13th March 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was infamously murdered near her apartment in the New York borough of Queens. In their report on the attack, the New York Times suggested that even though there had been a large number of witnesses present, not one of them had telephoned the police. The conclusion the New York Times reached was that this episode indicated a backward slide in civilized society, that people no longer cared enough about each other to get involved. The alternative version of events is of course quite different and less sinister. Research has subsequently proved that people are prone to take their cues from observing each others behaviour, so if everyone around you is acting normally, then everything must be alright. In the tragic case of Kitty Genovese the assumption that everyone else made was that someone else had already rung the police.

The Public Sector often seems like the borough of Queens. People from within almost every part of our large Public Sector organisations can see significant issues, in fact they are often uniquely placed to see these issues, but they stop short of doing anything about them and fall into a sense of inertia because they assume that there will be people in another room somewhere who will already be devoting their attention to busily solving this or that problem…people with more experience, people with more brains, people on a higher pay-scale or people with more authority…the implied thinking is that surely others will have seen the issue coming, and that addressing and dealing with it will be high on the radar of the great and the good.

Peter Senge in his book the Fifth Discipline, talks about organisations as having learning disabilities A key one of these being that people take the view that they are their job and only their job, or “I am my position and only my position”…this means they feel that they never need to see beyond the boundaries of what is in their line of sight; “its not my problem”, “its beyond my remit”, “I don’t have any authority in that area”, we’ve probably all heard all the reasons why people won’t raise or get involved in what many people see as important emerging issues.

But not seeing beyond your job, your role or your remit is increasingly risky. Estimates of the impact of disruptive change and the implementation of innovation vary from industry to industry; however one factor is consistent, the majority of significant change arises from outside the traditional sources. Industries, sectors and companies are seldom leap-frogged by those things they can see, they are more often than not taken by surprise by innovations that were created and developed elsewhere. The list of commercial “has-beens” that have fallen victim to the innovation of others is almost endless and the cycle of viability seems to be shortening as global market-places become increasingly competitive and information and knowledge sharing become easier and more widespread. Its not that long ago that I was joined at the hip to my Palm Pilot, was never out of my local bookstore and was a regular in my local pub; where are they now?

Peter Drucker famously observed that the job of management was to have your nose to the grindstone and your eyes to the hills. One of the biggest causes of organisational disruption is not that things are not known about, it is the time delay between when an issue is uncovered and when it is dealt with. So next time you sense smoke on the horizon or hear the sound of disruption coming over the hill, take action; don’t assume everyone else is aware and don’t be restrained by your position…after all if the disruptive innovators do take over your territory, there’s a really good chance they’ll need good pro-active people on the ground.

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